The sharp improvement in the relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic (and subsequently between the United Kingdom and Iran) has been remarkable – Washington is seriously considering military cooperation with Iran over the civil war in Iraq.
Above all else, this is a reflection of the absence of any strategy by the western powers. All they are pursuing in the Middle East is short-term aims – a situation that goes beyond the politics of the current holders of power in Washington and London. Indeed there is unanimity regarding current tactics between Democrats and Republicans, as well as between Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats.
In 2003, at the time of the invasion of Iraq, the US claimed it would build democracy on the ruins of the Ba’athist regime – we were told that market forces would create the conditions for democracy. No other solution could be contemplated: the entire infrastructure, economic and political, together with the social fabric of the Ba’athist state, had to be destroyed to allow this new system to flourish. During subsequent years both Republican and Democrat politicians have proposed similar solutions for Syria and Iran.
Yet, more than a decade after the invasion of Iraq, we are witnessing a complete U-turn: a softening of attitudes towards Iran, an acceptance of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria. Has anything changed in Iran or indeed in Syria to warrant this change of heart? The answer is clearly no. What has changed are immediate geopolitical priorities – the elevation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) to the position of the main enemy and the US need to ally with anyone as long as they oppose this group of jihadists.
Political commentators used to mock Kurdish organisations in Iranand Iraq for their shallow politics, for aligning themselves with the enemy of their enemy, irrespective of the consequence of such politics. Throughout the last five decades Iraqi Kurds have relied on Iranian support for fighting successive Iraqi governments and Iranian Kurds had, until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, relied on financial and logistic support from the government in Baghdad. Yet today we seem to be witnessing a superpower, the United States, following the same type of politics in the region.
A lot has been written about Isis and its religious ideas – the forced wearing of the hijab, the attacks on Christian communities in Syria, the banning of alcohol. Of course, in opposition all Islamic groups, Sunni and Shia, are puritanical, following the rules of amr bil maroof and nahi anil munkar (‘guidance for good’ and ‘forbidding evil’). It is when they come to power, as they did in Iran more than 35 years ago, that the population finds out they can be as corrupt and hypocritical as the secular states they replace. So, as Isis brands Shia Muslims ‘apostates’ who have brought Islam into disrepute, it is worth examining the position of religion in Iran – America’s best friend in the region.
Guided to heaven?
In the final stages of negotiations with the P5+1 powers over Iran’s nuclear programme, a serious row has broken out between president Hassan Rowhani and a number of conservative clerics about the role of the Islamic Republic in ‘guiding’ its citizens to heaven. The row is potentially serious, as it questions the very essence of the Shia state at a time of regional conflict and economic crises.
For more than 35 years the religious state in Iran has interfered in every aspect of the private and public life of its citizens. Iranians are regularly told what they can and cannot wear, what they can and cannot eat or drink, the kind of music that is suitable and the kind that provokes punishment. Senior clerics tell Iranians how many children they should have – a number that changes according to the state’s current needs. For example, at times of war and conflict Iranians are told they should have as many children as possible – the current desired number per family is 14, according to the supreme leader, ayatollah Ruhollah Khamenei. The clerics also tell Iranians when they must accept that the lives of their offspring must be sacrificed to ‘save Islam’. This was the message at Friday prayers during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. But in the immediate post-war period the recommendation was for only one or two children per family because of the general economic hardship. That policy dominated the post-war period – up until the recent calls by the supreme leader to increase the birth rate once again.
However, despite all the efforts of the religious state, the regime’s supporters and its opponents are united in their assessment of these policies: they have not worked. Iranian women, especially the young, do not like wearing the hijab. Every time the regime tries to impose harsher regulations, women of all ages, but once again especially the young, rebel by lifting their headscarves a few centimetres above their fringe.
The country has one of the highest rates of plastic surgery in the world. According to a report in the conservative Etemaad newspaper, as many as 200,000 Iranians, mostly women, go to cosmetic surgeons each year.1 Both the clerical hierarchy and the state are well aware that sharia laws on the hijab, the ban on mixed gatherings, drinking alcohol, homosexuality, playing pop music … are broken every second of every day. Hence the dual lives of most Iranians – apparently observant of Islamic rules in public, but in reality ‘decadent’ (according to Shia clerics) in private. This has resulted in a situation where three decades after the coming to power of the first Shia Islamic state, lying is the norm for most Iranians.
As part of maintaining this facade of religious observance, conservative clerics in the judiciary constantly try to restrict the use of the internet. On the other hand, Rowhani and his foreign ministers use social media pages and appear on Facebook and Twitter. The use of social media has become a serious matter in recent weeks – a Facebook page with pictures of Iranian women wearing no headscarf in public places inside Iran went viral. The page, entitled Stealthy freedom, was started by an exiled journalist to support the right for individual women to choose or reject the hijab. It got half a million ‘likes’ in less than three weeks. Women in Iran have used it to post photos of themselves or friends after ‘stealthily’ taking their hijabs off in public. They have even dared remove headscarves in places of historic and religious significance. It is illegal for any woman to leave the house without wearing a headscarf and the current activities on social media are considered part of a civil disobedience campaign. As the campaign gained momentum, both opponents and supporters of the forced hijab have entered the debate.
On May 24 Rowhani used a speech to call for less intervention in people’s private lives, as well as more respect for the rights of individual Iranian citizens. “Let people live their lives in peace. Do not interfere so much in people’s lives even if you think you are being sympathetic … Let people choose their own path to heaven. We cannot send people to heaven by force or by using the lash.”2
Most Iranians know that the punishment commonly carried out by Revolutionary Guards for citizens caught drinking, partying, wearing a ‘bad hijab’ or for attending mixed-sex gatherings is flogging. However, if you are rich you can pay for someone else to take the punishment or bribe officials to avoid the lash. All this making a mockery of sharia rules. Rowhani’s comments therefore represented both an admission of the reality of life in Shia Iran and a questioning of the role of the state in leading “people to heaven”.
The ultra-hard-line daily Kayhan called the president’s comments “questionable”. But by the end of the month senior clerics were more open in their criticism. On May 20, ayatollah Ahmad Khatami used a sermon to reaffirm the state’s duty: “The mission is to smooth the path to heaven; therefore the government is duty-bound to pave the way … We have to protect our Islamic system; we do not want to send anyone to heaven by force, but, with your statements, do not straighten the path to hell for anyone.” In Mashhad, ayatollah Sadegh Alamolhoda also spoke against Rowhani: “We will stand against all those preventing people from reaching heaven with all our force, not only with a whip.”3
On May 31 the Iranian president hit back. In a speech full of sarcasm he said: “Some people have nothing better to do. They have no work, no profession. They are delusional, incessantly worried about people’s religion and the afterlife. They know neither what religion is nor the afterlife, but they’re always worried.”4 Continuing his comments on this subject, Rowhani referred to a story of his time as a seminary student in Qom: “There were two great events in Qom during those years. One was the bath becoming a shower – a tragic event in the minds of some – and the other was when they wanted to change the time, winter and summer hours. They said that this was to ‘eliminate religion’. They said, ‘How will we know noon prayers?’ Well, how did we know until then? We used to pray at 12.15, now we pray at 1.15.”
Rowhani went on: “A religious government is a very good thing, but a governmental religion? I don’t know: we need to discuss that. We must not give religion to the administration. Religion should be in the hands of the experts themselves: the clerics, the seminaries, the specialists. It is they who have to propagate religion, while the administration must support them, help them – all of this is right.”
While this is still a long way from the call for the separation of state and religion, it is an historic comment in the context of a cleric who holds the second highest position in the country.
So how can we explain these dramatic statements at a time when the Iranian government’s attention should be focused on the nuclear negotiations?
In some ways the two issues are related. The president is well aware that the current round of negotiations is not going as smoothly as expected. Despite Iran’s concessions, it is still not clear if the nuclear deal with the 5+1 powers will be signed before the deadline of July 20. Ayatollah Khamenei gave him six months to complete the nuclear negotiations. That time period is about to come to an end. Rowhani is already facing a rebellion by conservative elements amongst the security forces and the basij (Islamic militia), so he is trying to build support amongst the overwhelming majority of the population who do want more personal freedom, less intervention in their private lives and who hate the forces of amr bil maroof and nahi anil munkar, Hezbollah and the rest of the god squad. Rowhani has nothing to lose. If the nuclear negotiations fail he will risk losing power and under those circumstances he could at least rely on the support of sections of the population. On the other hand, if he actually managed to strike a deal, however disadvantageous for Iran, he would win wide support amongst women and the youth – support he would need to confront the conservative and pro-nuclear lobby.
The Iranian president is not the only one facing problems. Iran’s supreme leader is trying to explain the contradiction between current economic pressures on the country caused by sanctions and his delusions about ‘national sovereignty and political independence’ in the era of global capital.
Two weeks ago Khamenei talked once more of “arrogant powers” when referring to the US and its allies. Of course, the supreme leader is right when he says western powers are not against Iran’s nuclear programme, but against the Islamic Republic in principle. However, he shows a level of self-deception when he says, “They were ruling the region without any worries. They had full control over a country like Iran, with its rich resources and numerous facilities … But now they have been deprived of all these things.”5
Well, not quite. Even if the US and its allies have lost friends in the region, as they did when the shah of Iran fell in 1979, they are not too concerned, because they exercise control over the financial and banking institutions. They also managed to bring oil-producing Iran to its knees. For all the talk of standing up to “arrogant powers”, Iran’s economy remains very much dependent. It is fully integrated into the system of international capital and can never gain full economic independence.
However, Khamenei’s recent utterances against the US, at a time when he might be considering an historic alliance over Iraq, show a different side of a ruler whose political history is unfamiliar to many outside Iran. For those of us who know of his close association with secular and leftwing forces in the 1960s and early 70s, his references to “justice, independence and self-sufficiency” sound like the delusions of an old third worldist.
Ali Khamenei was born in Mashhad in north-east Iran in 1939 to a religious family. His father, of Turkish Azeri origin, was an Islamic scholar and Khamenei followed in his footsteps and became a seminary student in Qom. He attended religious school between 1958 and 1964. Both during this period and later, when he joined the opposition to the shah, the young cleric was associated with not only religious, but also secular and even leftwing, intellectuals. The foundations of his politics go back to that era – opposition to the regime in Iran and indeed opposition to the US from a third-worldist position.Both in Mashhad and later in Tehran, Khamenei attended underground circles that included some of Iran’s best known leftwing writers and intellectuals. The pioneer free-verse poet, Mehdi Akhavan Sales, was a close friend.
His political views were in particular influenced by the coup d’etat against the regime of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. He recollected those times in an address to university students in Tehran:
It is interesting to realise that America overthrew his government even though Mossadegh had shown no animosity toward them. He had stood up to the British and trusted the Americans. He had hoped that the Americans would help him; he had friendly relations with them, he expressed an interest in them, perhaps he expressed humility toward them. And still the Americans overthrew such a government. It was not as if the government in power in Tehran had been anti-American. No, it had been friendly towards them. But the interests of Arrogance [Khamenei’s term for the US] required that the Americans ally with the British. They gathered money and brought it here and did their job. Then, when they brought their coup into fruition and had returned the shah, who had fled, they had the run of the country.6
At the time Khamenei agreed with writers such as Dariush Ashuri, who famously said, “The third world is composed of the poor and colonised nations, which are at the same time revolutionary.”7 His criticisms of western liberal democracy derive more from third-worldism than his religious studies in Qom. While many of his ideas have changed, he remains of the opinion that the primary concern for the US is to bring about regime change either through ensuring the ascendancy of ‘reformists’ or via total destruction.
This is what he said in 1987, speaking to UN general assembly when he was Iran’s president:
The history of our nation is in a black, bitter and bloody chapter, mixed with varieties of hostility and spite from the American regime, culpable in 25 years of support for the Pahlavi dictatorship, with all the crimes it committed against our people. The looting of this nation’s wealth with the shah’s help; the intense confrontation with the revolution during the last months of the shah’s regime; its encouragement in crushing the demonstrations of millions of people; its sabotage of the revolution through various means in the first years of its victory; the American embassy in Tehran’s provocative contacts with counterrevolutionary elements; the aid to coup plotters and terrorist and counterrevolutionary elements outside the country; the blockading of Iranian cash and property and refusal to transfer goods whose payment had long been received or assets that the shah had taken from the national wealth and deposited in his own name in American banks; the striving to enforce an economic embargo and the creation of a united western front against our nation; the open and effective support of Iraq in its war against us; and, finally, an irrational, thuggish invasion of the Persian Gulf that seriously threatened the region’s security and tranquillity – all this is only part of our nation’s indictment against the regime in the United States of America.8
So Khamenei’s sermons about the evils of the west might be full of religious phrases, but they have roots that go back to the 1950s. That is why it would be a mistake to think that he is simply anti-Christian or anti-western. He has often praised aspects of western culture, literature, science and music. He rejects the idea that the Quran has answers to all the world’s problems. He certainly has a more sophisticated view of western culture than many of his followers, describing it as “a combination of beautiful and ugly things”.
An avid reader, he has been known to discuss classical literature with visitors. Apparently in 1996 he told an audience of Iranian writers to “read the famous book The grapes of wrath, written by John Steinbeck … and see what it says about the situation of the left and how the capitalists of the so-called centre of democracy treated them.” His favourite book is said to be Victor Hugo’s Les misérables. In 2004 he praised it is as a “miracle in the world of novel writing.” It is “a book of history, a book of criticism, a divine book, a book of love and feeling.”9
However, for all this western cultural influence, at the end of the day his politics are very much nationalist and Islamic. Khamenei’s opposition to ‘Arrogance’ was influenced by nationalist writers such as Jalal Al-e Ahmad and liberal religious intellectuals like Ali Shariati. He is known to have studied the writings of the Sunni scholar and theorist of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by Jamal Abdel Nasser in 1966.
As the debate in Iran between Islamists and Marxists raged in the 1970s, Khamenei was closer to the opinions of Qutb, who wrote of the western powers:
They need Islam to fight against communism in the Middle East and the Islamic countries of Asia and Africa … Of course, the Islam that America and the western imperialists and their allies in the Middle East want is not the same Islam that fights imperialism and struggles against absolutism; rather, it is that Islam that struggles against the communists. Thus, they do not want the Islam that rules and definitely do not want an Islamic government, since when Islam rules it sets up another ummah [Islamic community] and teaches the nations that it is obligatory to become strong, and that rejecting imperialism is a necessity, and that the communists, too, are like the imperialist pests, and that both are enemies …10
Indeed it is the anti-communist aspect of the Qutb doctrine that has dominated Khamenei’s politics since his rise to power. A trend that intensified after he became supreme leader.
In his youth Khamenei moved in the same opposition circles as founding members of the Fedayeen Khalq, as well as leftwing poets such as Shafiee Kadkani. There are reliable reports of Khamenei’s time as a political prisoner under the shah when he was being interrogated about, amongst others, Marxists activists. By all account he refused to cooperate with the authorities. Others have recalled Khamenei’s admiration for the young guerrilla leader, Massoud Ahmadzadeh.11
Recently a journalist asked me what I thought Ahmadzadeh would say about Iran’s supreme leader. I have no crystal ball, but after the execution of thousands of communists in the hands of the Islamic regime the answer is not difficult: Ahmadzadeh would be as committed to the overthrow of this dictator as he was committed to the overthrow of the shah’s regime. The reality is that the world will not remember the Ali Khamenei who as a young seminary student wrote a book entitled For a classless tohidi [single god] society. The lasting image of him will be that of a theocratic ruler who presides over a neoliberal capitalist economy, where the gap between rich and poor is wider than in most countries, where corruption is institutionalised, where the overwhelming majority of the population dare not express a political point of view, and constantly lie to conceal their unIslamic behaviour from the religious police.